Tuesday, March 13, 2012

High-Speed Rail: Which side are you on boys, which side are you on?

This is the kind of article I would prefer to make comments about as "hypertext" or interlinear explication, (to throw some jargon around). 

Alpern reaches for the fundamental distinctions between high-speed rail haters and lovers. And he sees it in terms of land use and what our future intentions are in the way we live.

The pro-rail people, he argues, want to get all of us out of the suburbs and cram us into the cities, and therefore closer to public service transit. We would no longer need our cars; instead we would live in "friendly, vibrant neighborhoods." Doing so, they postulate, is good for the environment.

The anti-rail people see this as social engineering, and at its worst, Socialism. They think this is a "liberal" philosophy of the primacy of the needs of the group over the needs of the individual. 

The problem with these distinctions is their abstractness.  They ignore the harsh realities, the existential facts on the ground, of the high-speed rail project as it is currently unfolding in California.

And that is exactly what this blog has been trying to describe.  Perhaps, in some utopian world, high-speed rail has a place within the complexity of public mass transit and inter-city travel.  However, we don't live in such a world.  Instead we are living in a world of political machinations and manipulations, where the goal of every bureaucracy is to acquire funding and head-count to sustain itself.

High-Speed Rail in California has become a battering ram, justifying its money shredding with marketing verbiage that makes no sense and is mostly, if not entirely, untrue.  Politicians, pushed by large corporations as well as Unions, are promoting the acquisition and distribution of billions of taxpayer dollars, in the name of, or disguise of, high-speed rail. As we always say, first and foremost, HSR is about the money.

Let's get into the article.


LOS ANGELES Tuesday, March 13th 2012 12:53

Vision and Vitriol, Land Use and Abuse
03.12.2012 KEN ALPERN

ALPERN AT LARGE - It’s amazing how far-reaching the disconnect between the left and right remains on issues such as land use, transportation, population growth, and envisioning what California will look like by the end of the 21st Century.  The California High Speed Rail Initiative (CAHSR), to that end, is as good an example of any as to how some groups of people will scream for or against a project, and will do so with a vigor that makes the average Joe/Jane wonder what the big deal is. 

The big deal is, of course, the issue of what to do with our land, and how we can preserve it for future generations.

[Well, yes, but there's a lot more to it than that that causes objectors to "scream against" this project.  Which is that the train costs way too much and will serve far too few.]

And there are many who question whether it’s “our” land to begin with…but they’re proving my point, here, which is that California is moving at a pace that’s alarming to both sides:  too much pollution and spoilage of the land, versus not enough focus on ensuring that the average Californian (and his/her family) can enjoy the land that’s as treasured a gift as any.

[The truth is that there are too many of us, consuming far too much and the land -- this planet -- can't sustain all of us. This is our only "spaceship" floating in "outer space" and we are treating it like a temporary, disposable, habitation. But, that's another discussion. High-speed rail won't make our lives any better; it will only add more infrastructure to an already over-burdened planet.]

Case in point:  a wonderful article by Ralph Vartabedian of the L.A. Times that goes far beyond the planning and funding issues surrounding the troubled CAHSR project.  Vartabedian addresses the divergent philosophies of many on the environmentalist (usually for) or conservative (usually against) sides of the debate surrounding this project.

Such a debate often leaves the average Californian wondering how those opposing the CAHSR often conclude it’s social engineering at its worst, no less that it leaves that Californian wondering how those supporting the CAHSR often conclude it’s necessary to accommodate the rising population in California and/or it’s necessary to save the environment.

In fact, it’s neither—the average Californian who voted for the CAHSR project are similar to those who’ve voted for local rail projects in L.A., Orange, San Diego or other counties in the state.  That average Californian just figured that traffic was a real pain, that it would be nice to create more options to get from here to there, and perhaps to enjoy life a little on a worthy public investment. 

[And that's the point. We do need improved local, urban and regional public mass transit to get around in our ever-growing cities. We don't need increased inter-city transit of the luxury, high-end type.  We have lost sight, with high-speed rail, of the greatest good for the greatest number. HSR is the opposite of that.]

Of course, now that our collective learning curve has gone up on the true costs (and lack of environmental improvement) of the CAHSR project, it’s not surprising to learn that many Californians have soured on it and want a more cost-effective investment.  Like Metrolink or Caltrain.  Like MetroRail or BART.  Like freeway and road improvements.

Which is NOT to say that Californians want NO transportation investment…just a more cost-effective one. 

[That's hard to argue with. Cost-effectiveness should be the highest criterion for judging the efficacy of high-speed rail. It has, by and large, been ignored.]

Measure R is still popular in L.A. County, despite the traffic impacts of the freeway, road and rail project construction that has resulted from it, and Orange County residents are similarly pleased with their freeway and Metrolink projects that are being funding by their own county transportation initiative.

So to advocate for new initiatives, the mega-liberals who are screaming about climate change probably won’t get as far as those raising the issue of increased mobility in getting Californians to open their wallets on transportation.

Similarly,the mega-conservatives who are screaming about how rail will turn our state into an Asian or European megadense-city-based society probably won’t get as far as those raising the issue of cost-effectiveness in getting Californians to close their wallets on transportation.

Both conservatives and liberal extremists have raised all sorts of straw men and presumptive arguments with respect to land preservation, but it’s not hard to conclude that most of us, regardless of political bent, just want to make sure that open space and California’s beautiful parks and forests and landscapes remain unblemished by tourists, developers and industry. 

[I'm not so sure that land-use, such as preservation of the landscape, is such a central issue here. What's of greater concern is the gross intrusiveness of high-speed rail in both the urban and agricultural environments.]

The desire to have a house in the suburbs isn’t going away, and the desire to have a pad close to where the action is also isn’t going away—but different people have different desires, and both can, will and should be catered to by the free market.  Whether it’s creating urban parks like Sunset Triangle Plaza , or restoring roads to Big Bear or Sequoia, people want open space and a place to enhance their quality of life.

The Expo Line isn’t supposed to free the world of global warming (as some say it might), but it probably is a nice alternative to the I-10 freeway on a Friday night if you’d like to see a concert or go to the Museum of National History.  The Green Line to LAX will clearly be a “green” line with respect to an environmentally-friendly alternative to driving to LAX, but the lowered blood pressure of those working at or commuting to LAX will probably be the biggest motivator to use the line.

And ditto for the CAHSR project (even if it’s not megahigh-speed rail, it would be nice to have a faster and easier way to get to/from one end of California compared to the I-5 or 101 freeways).  And ditto to any Southern California to Las Vegas rail project as well (ever have fun on the I-15 traffic jam to Vegas on a Friday night?). 

[What Alpern is proposing is not the CHSRA vision of high-speed rail, which is a 2:40 trip on a 220 mph train that doesn't stop between LA and SF except in San Jose. He's proposing a different passenger rail service entirely; one that is not on the table.]

And that never ending population explosion in California?  Last we all checked, much of the population is leaving—both native Californians and illegal immigrants alike appear to be shunning the state, for a variety of reasons—and there’s a question of whether there’s even enough water to TRY to accommodate tens of millions of new residents. 

[This is indeed the case. The dire population growth forecasts are greatly exaggerated. And it is this population expansion in California that is used to justify the necessity for HSR.  This situation needs to be studied independently of the promotionalism of the rail advocates.]

So as historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontiersman-oriented, Westward-ho approach to the individuality of Americans takes a turn to new parts of the country, the era of “California being the only state where new things can occur with a can-do attitude” appears to be over.  California need not be forever on the decline, but it’s finally reached the point where, after all, it’s only just one of 50 states where people can move to and make a new life. 

[Let me say that another way.  California cannot "win the future" by buying high-speed rail from the past.  Our innovative/creative capacity has been shut away from this project and its intended development.  If this is our idea of "catching up" with other countries, such as China, we have been sorely misled.]

And with the major Californian port city of Stockton facing bankruptcy for a variety of reasons, its problems mirror that of cities and counties throughout the Golden State.  Issues of land use, downtown revitalization, reining in the excesses of public sector unions, taxpayer rights and responsibilities, etc. all exist in Stockton as they do in L.A. and all over California.

So beyond the hype of the left and the right (who perhaps are guilty only of living in their own cloistered worlds), the average Californian is left to confront the obvious—how to get a job, how to get a nice place to live for one’s family, how to preserve that nice place, and (of course) how to reasonably and realistically pay for a community that one can work, play, raise children and enjoy an exemplary quality of life.  

[And, finally, high-speed rail has nothing to do with those aspirations.  It won't provide all the promised jobs. It won't benefit the environment or reduce vehicle miles. It won't create whole new economies. And it will be a cost burden on taxpayers forever. It is, in short, a very bad deal indeed.]

(Ken Alpern is a former Boardmember of the Mar Vista Community Council (MVCC), previously co-chaired its Planning and Outreach Committees, and currently is Vice Chair of its MVCC Transportation/Infrastructure Committee. He is co-chair of the CD11 Transportation Advisory Committee and chairs the nonprofit Transit Coalition, and can be reached at Alpern@MarVista.org. He also co-chairs the grassroots Friends of the Green Line at www.fogl.us.   The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mr. Alpern.) 

Vol. 10  Issue 21
Pub. Mar. 13, 2012
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